What Will We Do When We Have All The Stuff?

My 12-year old son wants nothing for Christmas.

Well, he wants a few things: a gift card maybe to Barnes & Noble or GameStop, although he has plenty of money in his savings account to buy books and games; a new bike, although he is happy riding the one he has; new shoes, and this is more a request from me than from him.

But that’s about it, and those items have been divied up to the grandparents who cannot accept “nah, don’t get your grandson anything for Christmas this year.”

Jared and I keep pulling up the spreadsheet we made with the kids’ wish lists, expecting to see something we forgot in the Devin column. But there is nothing. Over and over again we’ve questioned him, and over and over again the answer is the same.

“There really isn’t anything else I want right now.”

At 12 years old, Devin knows he has everything he needs and wants.

As astounding as that is from the perspective of being completely counterculture in a world that is driven by the compulsion to consume, it’s also left us with an unusual dilemma.

What do we do when there’s nothing left to buy?

Once we’ve accumulated all the stuff, what are we left with?

What drives us? What occupies our time?

If we already have it all, what’s the point?

On the surface, I know this question sounds ridiculous. We assume that our lives are so much more than accumulating stuff. But I wonder if it’s this question that prevents people from embracing minimalism. I wonder if it’s what keeps us working long hours and chasing more wealth. Is it possible that we hesitate to say we have enough because we have no idea what would come after that?

What would you be doing today if you didn’t have to earn enough money to keep buying stuff?

How would you spend your Saturdays and Sundays if you didn’t need to run to the store?

Maybe you’d catch up on your Hulu queue, finish that book finally, or just watch whatever was on TV. Maybe you’d bake some cookies.

And then what?

If you had everything you needed or wanted in life, if you had nothing left to acquire, then what?

It has not been easy to answer that question in regards to Devin’s Christmas gifts.

We spent some time thinking about what we could buy him that he just didn’t know he wanted (night vision goggles!), because the idea of not buying him anything was simply too difficult for us to embrace. It occurs to me now that this is the role that advertisers and celebrities often play in our lives; they create a need where there wasn’t even a want, and we play along because we have to always be getting more. How else can we explain Snuggies and Segways?

Because we live in an RV (and technically we live out of four carry-on sized suitcases right now), we couldn’t go crazy with buying things that were neither needed nor asked for. Not even thirty years of habitual thinking could convince us to stuff our tiny home and empty our wallets completely when the kid has been adamant that he has enough. And so we were quickly back to where we started before the night vision goggles.

What do we do once we have all the stuff?

In terms of Christmas, this was a question of how to express love without consuming and celebrate without things. We had to think beyond boxes and toys and look more closely at our child.

I suppose that’s what people who embrace minimalism must do, too, or people who learn to accept the concept of enough. They have to look closer, dig deeper. They have to make thoughtful choices about their time and energy, not because they are more thoughtful people, but because no one else can do that thinking for them. No advertiser is waiting around to tell us how to spend our lives if we aren’t spending our money.

That much thinking about how to spend your days is a bit exhausting. It’s certainly much easier to just want what we’re told to want.

“Maybe we can just get him a nice shirt?” I suggest.

“He doesn’t want a bunch of new clothes,” Jared reminds me.

It’d be so much easier if he did.

Ultimately, Jared and I decided to give him the gift of not doing dishes a certain number of times and the power to decide when to invoke his gift. To anyone who might ask what Devin got for Christmas, this will sound ridiculous and inadequate, but I’m pretty sure my son will be ecstatic. I know I feel like I’m giving much more of myself than I could possibly give with my wallet; I hate doing dishes.

I’m still rolling around the bigger question for myself.

Devin’s lack of a gift list has made me aware of how much I am still driven by consumption. I realize that I actually seek out things to want or need. I search for holes in my wardrobe, organizational problems in need of plastic solutions, and projects that require supplies. I sold almost everything I owned six months ago to reduce the amount of stuff I needed to manage, and yet I struggle almost daily to know what to do with myself — with my life — if I’m not acquiring more stuff.

The truth is that I, like Devin, have everything I need or want.

I suspect that most of us do, really.

It’s time I stopped running from that fact and faced up to what that leaves me with:

The opportunity to decide what comes next.

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  1. Megan says:

    I like that gift idea – get of chores free card. Another thought: Do you guys have special time that you spend with each kid, alone? You might also give him a "Day w/ Mom" card or a "Day w/ Dad" card so he can have a a day where all your attention is on him.

  2. I have often thought, as most folks do, if I ever won the lottery (ie-had buttloads of $$ so I no longer had to want) I would set up half of it in safe investments so we could live off the interest, then use the other half to keep myself busy with a foundation for diabetes research and set up my own no kill animal shelter. One of my more annoying relatives once asked me , and I quote, "Why the hell would you want to waste money on some stupid animals?", and I looked at him and said, "One feeds the pocket, the other feeds the soul." Just find what would feed his soul and gift that to Devin!

  3. Suebob says:

    As Johnny Cash said:You may have moneyOr things of that kindBut there's no satisfactionLike a satisfied mind

  4. What a very profound question. What do you do when you have it all? There is the theory that people have different languages of love. Some want words, some want objects, some want experiences, etc. How wonderful that Devin doesn't need objects to feel loved. Clearly he feels the love you all have for him. That thought makes my heart swell. I am married to someone who wants nothing. I have found that experiences are often a surprise he enjoys (if you're still searching). I hope you pursue this topic further. I am interested in the answer to the original question.

  5. Kari says:

    I'm definitely in the "get experiences if not a physical thing" camp – which shocks some who wonder why we "waste" money going on a trip since there is "nothing" left when we're done. But, I like the things that just leave impressions in our mind (and yes, a full camera drive!) But – I admit being sad when I see everyone else open up gifts after I've insisted I want "nothing," because I do want something.

  6. michelle (burghbaby) runs a little event every year called christmas crazy to raise funds in order to give christmas presents to kids who would otherwise do without. one boy asked that all of his birthday presents be given to christmas crazy. he knows he has enough and wanted to share with others. perhaps find a local homeless shelter and give devin a large box to unwrap christmas morning that is filled with socks and toothbrushes, small stuffed animals, hats, canned goods, etc., then explain that since he has enough you want to give him the gift of assisting others who don't. then take him with his big ole box o stuff and let him see what a difference he makes.p.s. your son is turning into a hell of a good man. give him a hug from me.

  7. Lisa says:

    I found myself in the same boat this year. Sure I can always come up with something – there's about $3k worth of lenses I have my eye and wish list on, but really? I don't want anything. I don't spend a lot of time thinking of things I need, I spend it thinking of things I want to do. Sometimes those doings need supplies, like the quilting class I want to take. Mostly though it's just carving out the time to do them. I'd love to spend more time with my camera, trying out cool techniques and my only limitation with that is time. I truly can't remember the last time I was bored. There are too many things I want to experience and too little time. It's a good think I married a guy that's just like me in that regard, although it drives him nuts when I say I don't want anything.

  8. ilinap says:

    Excellent points, Britt. And I'm guilty as charged.

  9. Michelle says:

    The chores coupon is a great idea. Another is to give him the gift of experiences and learning. Is there something he wants to learn how to do? Buy him lessons. Or is there something he'd like to do somewhere you're traveling? For the last 4 years, I've let friends know I do not want anything nor am I buying anything material for any one. I'm in essence removing myself from the commercialism of Christmas. What I do instead is send my friends a coupon good for one night out, my treat, to a dinner where we can sit and talk and just spend quality time together. So in lieu of actual things, give him experiences and memories. =)

  10. I have A LOT of stuff. I certainly don't need it all and I certainly don't need more, but there's always the want for more. It's a problem for people shopping for me (as you said, they need to get something) as I migrate to digital books, movies and music.It's great that your son realizes that. It's going to make life easier for him (and you!) as he gets older.For me, I don't "need" more things, but I'd like to replace some things. But it's mostly technology, a new camera, a new bluetooth headset. Even a new bicycle. But it's really mostly revisions and updates of what I currently know and use.

  11. Debra says:

    Just an idea (I was thinking of doing this for my nephews and niece), have you considered opening an account for him with Kiva? He could have all the fun of finding someone to help and getting updates on how well they're doing. I like the 'get out of chores' idea, too. I would love for someone to give me the gift of getting my groceries or gassing up the vehicle. :)

  12. Thanks for the great question, Britt!It kept me thinking that life is not about having.

  13. Allyson says:

    Jamie Johnson (the heir to the Johnson&Johnson Co.) did a whole documentary on this. He was coming of age, and knew that his inheritance meant he didn't have to work for a living, and was dumbfounded on the question of what to do with his adult life – for which he had no necessary path. I watched it streaming on Netflix, it's called "Born Rich." I know the conclusions I drew from it, but I won't spoil it for you. I thought it was interesting, though.

  14. Poppy says:

    Trust me, you're already giving him what he wants – a trip home to Iowa.

  15. Carly says:

    I had so many thoughts, I wrote a response post. Every time you post it astounds me that I'm almost always working through the same issue either immediately or just prior to your posting. Devin is an amazing person. I almost can't bear the suspense with regard to what he will be like as an adult and what he will accomplish.

  16. Dayna Harvey says:

    Hi Miss Britt :-) I have to tell you that I was coming to your blog for "business reasons". I will leave that to another time. I have been captivated by the few posts I have read tonight. Your most recent one resonated with me in a way that most people would not understand. This post brought me to tears.I am desperately wanting to do with my children when you are doing with your family, but I will be doing my travels in Mexico. I have been to Mexico 10 times in the past year – for business and for personal – but while there have come to embrace the idea of living with minimal. Every time I come home from a trip I walk into a house that has too much stuff, too much mess, not enough appreciation and not enough satisfaction.I am embarrassed that my children who are 6, 8, 10 don't care if I throw out or donate a trash bag of toys because there is more than enough to still go around. I feel like I have failed as a mother to teach my children how lucky they are to have never NEEDED a thing in their lives. I'm not sure that in this US culture I will be able to accomplish that. If all goes well, I will begin my journey with my children in Cabo San Lucas Mexico in June where we will do a few months of Spanish classes and then move on to Guadalajara for a few months and then see where our journey takes us. I want my children to experience and live LIFE!! I will be blogging about our adventure too :-)I thank you so very much so sharing your story!! I look forward to going back to the beginning of your journey and catching up with you and your family. I support what you are doing, I encourage you to keep sharing because there are many other families out there who are DYING to do what you are doing and I hope that we will keep in touch.Happy Holidays :-)Dayna Harvey

  17. Dayna's comment above resonated with me as well as you entire post. The thought of being very minimalist for the holidays crossed my mind way back when my kids were very young. Unfortunately, grandparents and other relatives had other ideas. I wish I had been more insistent because now there is definitely a sense of entitlement with my kids and it breaks my heart a little bit. At any rate, your thoughts are all very inspiring and I plan on coming up with a new plan for our family to focus less on "stuff" and doing more stuff together! Thanks for a great post and I'm excited to read more!

  18. donna says:

    I asked my family specifically to get me nothing, to take anything they felt like spending on me and donating the money to St. Jude's instead. But rather than doing that, they bought me a bunch of stuff. And I can't really return it without letting them know I'm doing it. It's just annoying because it really had nothing to do with me, they just couldn't deal with the thought of not giving me a THING.

  19. I am doing Kiva for several family members, but for a kid I suggest looking for charities that give animals. My Mom "gave" me a lama last year and I keep thinking about it, so sweet to know it's out there somewhere helping a family. She also found a group that gives soccer balls to kids as a gift to my soccer fan brother. Both of us were delighted.

  20. the muskrat says:

    Have you been reading Ecclesiastes?

  21. ha! I just wrote about something along these lines today (http://www.livingthelifefantastic.com/2011/12/christmas-roi/). It's been a struggle for me to get to the point of really really trimming down our holiday and ONLY doing those things which are purposeful and meaningful – esp in terms of gifts for our children.The pressure may always be there, but it's getting so much easier to ignore.

  22. love. this. post. I think it's amazing that even after selling off your belongings & presumably having come to terms with all that that entails, you've come to find that you're still consumed by consumption. And oh my god, "The opportunity to decide what comes next"…. I wish I had the clarity of mind & heart to view my currently turned-upside-down-life in that way. But, I plan on repeating that statement to myself until I believe its truth….to believe that the unknown can truly be an opportunity, and not something to be terrified of.happy holidays :)

  23. Liz says:

    I've been trying to get rid of a lot of my stuff. It's hard. It's really, really hard, for no reason. There's a part of me that is really brutal when it comes to getting rid of things, and yet another part of me that clings to certain things that I don't really need or even use. I can't bear, for example, to part with my old journals, even though I never read them, nor do I ever write in a journal. (That's what the private option on my blog is for!) Yet they occupy an entire plastic bin, along with my high school yearbook. There isn't anything in them that I'd want my future children to read, so I can't even use that as an excuse. And yet… I just can't throw them away.I really want to have less stuff, though. There are five of us plus two cats living in this one bedroom apartment, which would be crowded anyway, but the piles of things with no place make me crazy and kill my productivity. I've gotten much better at saving money instead of buying more things that I'll use but don't really need, but I'm still always faced with the dilemma of working with the little space I have. I give you guys a lot of credit for living in an RV together, because that space is even smaller and I'm pretty sure my parents, sister, fiance, and I would kill each other if we did the RV thing for more than a week. It's bad enough here at the house! Still, this apartment is full of memories of my grandparents, and I'm grateful that we moved in here because we got to spend that extra time with my grandfather.But oh man, the stuff!

  24. martymankins says:

    When you have a 12 year old that asks for nothing, you know you have some great parenting going on.

  25. Just Jane says:

    That is one extraordinary boy you've got. His understanding of enough – at TWELVE – is more than most people grasp in a lifetime. Instead of stuff, I (as an aspiring minimalist), spend the extra dollars I have on people…charity, brunch with friends, supper parties. I don't need anything more than what I have. What makes me happy is surrounding myself with the people who give me the most joy!I'm digging myself out of the debt I acquired in my twenties. When I've got that paid down to $0, I will pare down my work week so that I can spend more time doing what I love with the people I love. That doesn't involve acquiring more things.

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